Sustainable Water: Lessons from an Indonesian Community Forest in a “Barren Village”

Residents cross the drying rice fields in Latak Village, Grobogan Regency, Indonesia in 2019. Some areas in Grobogan experience annual droughts during the dry season, resulting in dry fields and scarce clean water.

A Four-Part Series on Water (Part 2: Sustainable Water in a Barren Indonesian Village)


Water is undeniably a basic human need. In addition to consumption, water is vital for economic reasons. Unfortunately, not everyone has easy access to this vital resource.  Experts believed that Java, Indonesia’s most populous island of more than 150 million residents, is presently in danger of water scarcity with the situation worsening in the future.

In the Technocratic Draft of the National Medium-Term Development Plan 2020-2024 issued by the Ministry of National Development Planning (Bappenas), water scarcity in Java, Bali and Nusa Tenggara were estimated to increase annually with the proportion of areas experiencing water crisis rising from 6.0%  in 2000 to 9.6%  in 2045. Water quality was also predicted to decline significantly. Researchers attributed these to several factors including climate change, population growth and changes in land use.

Gunung Kidul Regency in Yogyakarta, central Indonesia, is one area that continues to experience water scarcity, especially during the onset of the dry season. The topography of this area which is dominated by karst hills makes it difficult for water to be stored in the ground. Consequently, the land has become less fertile, dry and barren. This is exacerbated by climate change which results in the arrival of erratic seasons, as well as land use changes that reduces the surrounding ​​natural forest.

Every year, droughts hit at least 14 to 15 sub-districts out of a total 18 sub-districts in the province, including Patuk, Tepus, and Purwosari Districts. In August 2019, for example, at least 134,000 residents in 14 sub-districts in Gunung Kidul were affected by extreme drought, and had added difficulty of getting clean water. Some of them even resorted to selling livestock for water.

Amidst this adversity, there is one area in Gunung Kidul which in recent years has never experienced a drought, the Gedoro village in Patuk District. It was discovered that this happened partly because the residents there consistently protected the forest in their area. By ensuring the forest’s sustainability, their water source continues to provide. How did this initiative start? What lessons can be learnt?  And what could the future water crisis be like in Indonesia if things remain unchanged?

Planting Trees, Preserving Water

In the 1970s, large sections of the community forest in the Gedoro village were cleared by the residents themselves. After the emergence of various problems such as reduced water sources and soil erosion, the residents realized that they had to initiate reforestation activities in tens of hectares of deforested forest. It was only in the 1990s that residents of the Gedoro village who were also members of the Ngudi Rejeki Forest Farmers Group (KTH Ngudi Rejeki) consistently planted trees and regulated their use so that the balance of nature was maintained.

They planted tree crops such as teak, acacia, mahogany, rosewood and sengon laut, both in the forest and around their homes. In 2009, KTH Ngudi Rejeki passed a regulation requiring residents to plant five to ten tree seedlings for every tree they cut. “The rules are still in effect today,” said Secretary of KTH Ngudi Rejeki Rendy Kurnia Adhitama in a personal interview with the authors. After 20 years, trees are now growing densely in the village.

Rendy also shared that reforestation has supported the availability of water in the area, during both the dry and rainy seasons. From an initial three springs, it has now increased to eight. These increased water sources are more than sufficient to provide water for the approximately 260 people who live in the village. In 2018, for its efforts to preserve the environment, KTH Ngudi Rejeki received the Kalpataru award from the government.

“We are very grateful for this condition,” said Rendy. “Therefore, as much as possible we do not cut much, but continue to plant,”

The head of the Gedoro village, Wartono, told the authors that the nature preserving attitude in fact encourages other activities that are more environmentally friendly. Hillside terraces were maintained regularly. Organic and inorganic waste were better managed to be used as fertilizer and other recycled crafts. The existence of the forest has also encouraged the return of animals, such as the punglor bird, starling, and turtledove.

Trees in this community forest also have an economic benefit for the residents. A number of residents use wood to make handicraft products, which they sell thereby increasing their standard of living. Consequently, school dropout rates reduced. In the past, residents in this village only studied up to junior high school, but now the younger generation have continued their studies to universities.

“Now our KTH activities have become a model for other farmer groups. We hope more and more parties will imitate our efforts,” said Wartono.

What has transpired in Gedoro was replicated in other areas such as in the Nglipar and Semoyo areas, also located in Gunung Kidul. Environmental activist from the Volunteer Alliance for Nature Saving (AruPA) Sugeng Triyanto shared with the authors that tree planting by farmer groups in those two areas contributed to the surplus supply of water. Based on AruPA’s records, this has also occurred in Wonogiri, Purworejo and Boyolali in Central Java.

Aligned with the saying, “you reap what you sow”, the authors argue the outcomes of how we treat nature is dependent of human nature. Evidently, decades of tree planting by KTH Ngudi Rejeki have ensured the availability of water throughout the year. This also demonstrates the importance of the community playing an active role while supported by the government.

An Inevitable Clean Water Crisis

The biggest factor causing the water crisis in Java is climate change which causes more water evaporation due to increasing temperatures. This problem was confounded by the massive conversion of land use from infiltration areas to settlements and industrial areas, thus threatening water sources in Java.

Based on predictions, Java will experience an increase in water deficit until 2070. Furthermore, climate change will not only result in reduced clean water and sanitation, but also water pollution, loss of water biodiversity, droughts and floods.

Recognizing the threat, and the government is taking several steps to anticipate the worsening water scarcity. Dozens of dam construction projects and the revitalization of reservoirs and lakes are in progress, although some think that these efforts are not enough. Data from the Directorate General of Water Resources (Ditjen SDA) of the Ministry of Public Works and Public Housing (PUPR Ministry) stated that until November 2020, 15 of the target 61 dams have been completed.  About 46 others are still under construction. Subsequently, as many as 18 new dams are planned to be built in the period 2020-2024.

The government has also been encouraged to use modern technology to recycle marginal water such as brackish water into clean water. This method has been done in other countries such as in the Middle East where sea water is distilled into drinking water.

Similarly, the founder of the Indonesia Water Institute (IWI) Firdaus Ali also encouraged the government to build modern clean water infrastructure accessible by all Indonesians.  This is because only 21.8% of Indonesia’s total population was being served by clean water supply companies.  “Raw water in Indonesia is abundant, around 3.9 trillion cubic meters. However, it does not reach the community because clean water infrastructure is still limited and its management is still far from what it should be,” said Firdaus.

The challenges of the present and future water crisis should not be underestimated. As the crisis is worsening incrementally, communities may not even be aware of the impending disaster. It is, thus, pertinent for increased public awareness of the climate crisis and its consequences. The remarkable development that has occurred in Gedoro village and other similar areas is not impossible to be replicated elsewhere. The key is the willingness to start and remain committed to solving the issue.

Part 1: Tackling Riverine Litter in Indonesia: All Contributions Matter

Part 3: Valuing Water through Community Empowerment in Malaysia

Part4: The Inconspicuous Truth of Singapore’s Water: Cleaned rather than Clean

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Nindias Nur Khalika is a freelance journalist based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia who writes on environmental and socio-cultural issues. Her writings have been published in several publications such as Tirto.ID and the National Geographic Indonesia.

  • Ainur Rohmah is a freelance journalist based in Indonesia covering various topics, especially related to politics, radicalism/terrorism, and travel.

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